January 20, 2008
The Campaign Press is a Herd of Independent Minds
I've got a big new piece up at tomdispatch.com (and at Salon.com). My attempt to move beyond lamenting horse race journalism to explain why it persists. "Campaign reporters tend to be massively other-directed. The reality-check is what the rest of the press is doing."
The piece is called The Beast Without a Brain: Why Horse Race Journalism Works for Journalists and Fails Us. It’s about how the campaign media cannot easily make decisions, change course, or learn from its screw-ups because it is a “herd of independent minds.”
Todd Gitlin (who’s been a critic of horse race journalism for even longer than I have) began his response to “Beast” this way:
I ranted to a “60 Minutes” producer that the campaign coverage was shallow, trivial, preoccupied with the evanescent ups and the electrifying downs, the insiders’ moods, the rumors and gaffes, and incurious about the candidates’ records, and the weight or weightlessness of their arguments, the truth and untruth of their claims, and seemingly indifferent to the stakes of the most consequential election on earth. “I know, I know,” he said. “We talk constantly about how to do it better next time.”
That was in 1980.
Seven “cycles” ago. (A cycle is what a campaign insider calls an election.) Obviously the horse race fulfills a purpose for the press, and that purpose goes on… and on. But what is the point? You’ll have to read The Beast Without a Brain to find out. (Begins after the jump…) Oh, and don’t miss Zack Exley’s detailed report at OffTheBus: Organizing Matters: The Lesson from Hillary’s Nevada Win. A good example of what the horse race press doesn’t know and never will.
The Beast Without a Brain
Why Horse Race Journalism Works for Journalists and Fails Us
By Jay Rosen
Originally published at Tomdispatch.com, Jan. 20, 2008
Just so you know, “the media” has no mind. It cannot make decisions. Which means it does not “get behind” candidates. It does not decide to oppose your guy… or gal. Nor does it “buy” this line or “swallow” that one. It is a beast without a brain. Most of the time, it doesn’t know what it’s doing.
1. The Herd of Independent Minds
This does not mean you cannot blame the media for things. Go right ahead! Brainless beasts at large in public life can do plenty of damage; and later on — when people ask, “What happened here?” — it sometimes does make sense to say… the beast did this. It’s known as “the pack” in political journalism, but I prefer “the herd of independent minds” (from Harold Rosenberg, 1959) because I think it’s more descriptive of the dynamic. Mark Halperin of Time’s The Page (more about him later) calls the beast the Gang of 500. But gangs have leaders, which means a mind. That’s more than you can say about the media.
Now, the pack, lacking a brain, almost had a heart attack when Hillary Clinton won the New Hampshire primary, since they had told us Obama would run away with it because the pollsters told them the same thing. The near-heart attack wasn’t triggered by a bad prediction, which can happen to anyone, but rather by some spectacular wreckage in the reality-making machinery of political journalism. The top players had begun to report on the Obama wave of victories before there was any Obama wave of victories. The campaign narrative had gotten needlessly — one could say mindlessly — ahead of itself, as when stories about anticipated outcomes in the New Hampshire vote reverberated into campaigns said to be preparing for those outcomes even before New Hampshire voted.
“PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Key campaign officials may be replaced. She may start calling herself the underdog. Donors would receive pleas that it is do-or-die time. And her political strategy could begin mirroring that of Rudolph W. Giuliani, a Republican rival…”
That’s Patrick Healy in the New York Times the day of the New Hampshire primary, reporting on what would happen, according to nameless campaign insiders, if events about to unfold that day validated previous reports about what was likely to unfold that day. Healy’s best defense would be: Wait a minute, people with the Clinton campaign actually told me those things. They turned out to be premature and wrong. I didn’t make it up!
Which is true. But when actual facts are used in the construction of news fictions — and reports about the moves to be made in Hillaryland after Obama won Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina were precisely that, a news fiction — your story can be accurate, well-edited, within genre conventions, and, at the same time, deeply un-informational, not to mention wrong. In fact, accurate news about the race that subtracts from our understanding of it is one of the quirky features of chronic mindlessness in campaign media.
By mindless I generally mean: No one’s in charge, or “the process” is. Conventional forms thrive, even if few believe they work. Routines master people. The way it’s been done “chooses” the way it shall be done.
Independent bloggers, who should have more distance from the pack mind (and often do) were not necessarily better on this score. Greg Sargent of TPM Media — the blog empire run by political journalist Josh Marshall — reported as follows on January 7th: “Camp Hillary insiders who have been with her a very long time, such as Patti Solis Doyle, are worried about the long term damage that could be done to Hillary if she decides to fight on after a New Hampshire loss, though there’s no indication they are yet urging an exit.” Doyle was said to be alarmed about damage to Clinton’s Senate career from staying in the race amid a humiliating string of defeats.
Campaign news in the subjunctive isn’t really news. And primary losses don’t especially need to come at us pre-reacted-to, especially when there is plenty of time to air those reactions once any “string of defeats” actually happens. But while an individual mind in the press corps is quite capable of realizing this, the herd is not.
A good example would be an MSNBC program I saw just before the New Hampshire voting, where Dan Abrams asked his panel — including Rachel Maddow, Pat Buchanan, and himself — what each thought the final vote would be. The guests should have said, “How do we know? We’re not New Hampshire voters, or professional pollsters.” That would be intelligent — and accurate. But they did something mindless instead. Each took a few points off the polls everyone else in the pack was reading and gave a “personal” prediction — Obama by 4, Obama by 7.
Okay, so it’s not a big offense — but I didn’t say it was. I said it was an illustration of routine mindlessness. That’s when on-air journalism is dumber than the journalists who are on air.
Greg Sargent — a smart reporter, quite aware of the absurdities the pack produces – can, without great difficulty, dial back the use of nameless advisers pre-reacting to things that may not occur. (This post from his boss, Josh Marshall, suggests it may happen.) But the fact remains that his account, defining reactions-before-the-fact as news, was within the existing rules of journalism, relied upon by hundreds of other reporters adding their stories to the larger narrative. There’s nothing to prevent those rules from being changed, of course. Nothing, except for the fact that the media has no mind and so can’t easily change it.
2. Convergence of Judgment
Because we have evolved a way of talking about the news media that fails to recognize this very basic fact — no mind! can’t decide a thing! — everyone is free to grant more intentionality to the organism than reasonably exists. Here are just a few samples from recent weeks:
- Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post: “The media have decided, fairly or unfairly, that Iowa was Edwards’s best shot at winning the nomination.”
- John Amato, Crooks and Liars: “The media will treat Democrats much harsher than Republicans from here on in.”
- Ken Silverstein, Harpers: “Another factor in Obama’s favor is (just as the Clinton campaign claims) that the media seems to be strongly in his corner.”
- Blogger Tom Watson: “At the start of the campaign, I didn’t think the national media could possibly be successful in an anti-woman campaign against a Democrat.”
- Chris Bowers at Open Left: “OK, The Media Hates Clinton-But Why?”
I think we know why people speak this way. We use collective nouns, even when they mash way too much together, because, despite all the flattening and collapsing, there is some rough justice in saying, “The media loves Obama right now.” We know we’re speaking imperfectly, or metaphorically, but we also know we’re observing something that’s really happening.
And that’s fine, normal, human even. Nonetheless, it’s important to remember: The media has no mind. It might appear to decide things, but if no one takes responsibility for “Edwards must win Iowa,” then it’s not really a decision the media made, but a convergence of judgment among people who may instantly converge around a different judgment if it turns out that Edwards isn’t done after failing to win Iowa.
That’s pretty mindless. Strangely, though, the argument that the media has no mind serves almost no one’s agenda, with one exception, ably represented by Jon Stewart, but including all who satirize the news and the news criers, exposing their collective mindlessness and making it almost… enjoyable.
3. “We have special insight”
John Harris and Jim VandeHei, formerly of the Washington Post, are the top editors of The Politico, a new newspaper-and-web operation that only does politics. After the New Hampshire screw-up, which they called a “debacle” and a “humiliation,” Harris and VandeHei asked themselves why their profession, political reporting, “supposedly devoted to depicting reality, obsesses about so many story lines that turn out to be fiction.”
This is an excellent question and it’s admirable that they don’t mince words in framing it. “The loser — not just of Tuesday’s primary but of the 2008 campaign cycle so far — was us,” they write. That would be the pack, “…the community of reporters, pundits and prognosticators who so confidently — and so rashly — stake our reputations on the illusion that we understand politics and have special insight that allows us to predict the behavior of voters.”
A key point: “we have special insight.” The current generation of political reporters has based its bid for election-year authority on its horse race and handicapping skills. But reporters actually have no such skills. Think: what does a Howard Fineman (Newsweek, MSNBC) know about politics in America? I mean, what would you logically turn to him for? It’s got to be: Who’s ahead, what’s the strategy, and how are the insiders sizing up the contest? That’s supposedly his expertise, if he has any expertise; and if he doesn’t have any expertise, then what is he doing on my television screen, night after night, talking about politics?
Even if Fineman and company had it, the ability to handicap the race is a pretty bogus skill set. Who cares if you are good at anticipating events that will unroll in clear fashion without you? Why do we need people who know how this is going to play out in South Carolina when we can just wait for the voters to play it out themselves?
Among the “bogus narratives” the campaign press has developed so far, the Politico editors chose three to illustrate their humiliation. John McCain’s “collapse” in the summer of 2007, which meant we could write him off; Mike Huckabee’s win in Iowa, where the candidate without an organization took a state where electoral success, we were assured, was all about organization; and Obama’s “change the tone in politics” campaign which, according to the Gang, was not going to be in tune with the voters’ rawer, more partisan feelings in ‘08. All three were a bust, suggesting political journalists have no special insight into: How is this going to play out? What they have are cheap, portable routines in which you ask that kind of question, and try to get ahead of the race. This, too, is what I mean by mindlessness.
“If journalists were candidates, there would be insurmountable pressure for us to leave the race,” say Harris and VandeHei about their sorry-ass performance in ‘08. But they’re at sea in trying to explain why such things happen. They blame addiction to the game of politics, journalists and their sources hanging out too much together, and personal bias among reporters unconsciously rooting for the candidate who is more fun to cover. Those are certainly three factors. Another 23 could be listed without running out of plausible reasons, because what they’re really grappling with is routine mindlessness in their institution. Explaining that is a bit harder.
4. “Removed from the experience”
A much better attempt was this short and consistently to the point entry by Christopher Hayes of the Nation magazine: “WHY CAMPAIGN COVERAGE SO OFTEN SUCKS.” He starts with something that is known to everyone in the pack: Campaign reporting is an essay in fear.
“Reporting at events like this is exciting and invigorating, but it’s also terrifying. I’ve done it now a number of times at conventions and such, and in the past I was pretty much alone the entire time. I didn’t know any other reporters, so I kept to myself and tried to navigate the tangle of schedules and parking lots and hotels and event venues. It’s daunting and the whole time you think: ‘Am I missing something? What’s going? Oh man, I should go interview that guy in the parka with the fifteen buttons on his hat.’ You fear getting lost, or missing some important piece of news, or making an ass out of yourself when you have to muster up that little burst of confidence it takes to walk up to a stranger and start asking them questions.”
Whereas he had once thought of it as a rookie’s experience, this year he learned that the fear never goes away. “Veteran reporters are just as panicked about getting lost or missing something, just as confused about who to talk to. This why reporters move in packs. It’s like the first week of freshman orientation, when you hopped around to parties in groups of three dozen, because no one wanted to miss something or knew where anything was.”
It is rare to find a campaign correspondent who is inner-directed, with a vision of how to report on the election season that sends her off on her own. Campaign reporters tend to be massively other-directed. The reality-check is what the rest of the press is doing — and the Web makes it far easier to check. Mindless.
“When you go to one of these events as a reporter, there’s part of you that’s aware that you don’t really belong there,” writes Hayes.
“You’re an outsider, standing on the edges observing the people who are there doing the actual stuff of politics: listening to a candidate, cheering, participating. So reporters run with that distance: they crack wise, they kibbitz in the back, they play up their detachment. That leads to coverage that is often weirdly condescending and removed from the experience of politics.”
Removed from the experience. Well, yeah. That is the number one virtue of horse-race reporting and the inside baseball mentality: speed of removal from the immediate experience. Hayes thinks the “worst features of campaign reporting” can be traced back to the “psychological defenses that reporters erect to deal with their insecurities.” First line of defense: pack behavior. A second is what the Politico guys said: “the illusion that we understand politics” and with our special insight can predict the behavior of voters, anticipate a turn in the narrative, divine a winning strategy.
Maybe this illusion is reproduced for us because it is fear-reducing for them to mount the horse-race production.
5. Under the influence.
In November, Mark Halperin of Time, who is both a student of pack behavior and a creature of the pack, wrote a revealing op-ed piece about this “illusion that we understand.” He said he had been under the influence of Richard Ben Cramer’s massive and fascinating book, What It Takes, about the 1988 battle for the White House. Halperin wrote:
“I’m not alone. The book’s thesis — that prospective presidents are best evaluated by their ability to survive the grueling quadrennial coast-to-coast test of endurance required to win the office — has shaped the universe of political coverage.
“Voters are bombarded with information about which contender has ‘what it takes’ to be the best candidate. Who can deliver the most stirring rhetoric? Who can build the most attractive facade? Who can mount the wiliest counterattack? Whose life makes for the neatest story? Our political and media culture reflects and drives an obsession with who is going to win, rather than who should win.”
Right there, Halperin identifies the roots of mindlessness in campaign coverage: All right, press team, when that door opens, I want you go out there and find out for us… WHO IS GOING TO WIN?
That’s the baseline question. But how good a question is it?
The only decent definition of “information” I know of states that it is a measure of uncertainty reduced. But voters are the ones who reduce uncertainty in elections. They can do it pretty well themselves, without the help of horse-race journalists. Halperin once thought it fine to obsess over “the race,” because he considered the race a good proxy for the leadership test we’re supposed to be conducting during the now-well-more-than-a-year it takes to elect a new president.
“But now I think I was wrong,” he writes. George W. Bush passed his horse-race test and flunked the leadership test once in office. So did Bill Clinton, Halperin says. Both were good campaigners and strategists. Their weaknesses only became glaring to the pack when they were in office, he argues.
Let me say it again: Reporters have no special insight into how elections will turn out. According to Halperin, a thesis that has “shaped the universe of political coverage” is false; the rigors of the race do not produce good outcomes. So what does the pack do now? “Well, we pause, take a deep breath and resist. At least sometimes… we can try to keep from getting sucked in by it all.”
This is the same limp remedy Harris and VandeHei offered. They know they’re stuck with horse-race journalism. They know what a mindless beast it can be — and what a mindless beast they can be. And, above all else, they know they’re not going to change it. After all, they are it. Glenn Greenwald of Salon was right to point to this exchange between NBC’s Tom Brokaw and Chris Matthews as the results from New Hampshire came in…
“BROKAW: You know what I think we’re going to have to do?
“MATTHEWS: Yes sir?
“BROKAW: Wait for the voters to make their judgment.
“MATTHEWS: Well what do we do then in the days before the ballot? We must stay home, I guess.”
Matthews was being the realist: Without who’s-going-to-win, “we” might as well stay home. Brokaw (now long retired as the face of the NBC brand) gave him an apt warning in response: “The people out there are going to begin to make judgments about us if we don’t begin to temper that temptation to constantly try to get ahead of what the voters are deciding.” But he was speaking as if the media had a mind and could shift course.
6. Less innocence, more politics.
Let’s see if we can bring these strands together. I’ve been picking at the weaknesses of horse-race coverage, but to really understand it we need to appreciate its practical strengths.
Who’s-gonna-win is portable, reusable from cycle to cycle, and easily learned by newcomers to the press pack. Journalists believe it brings readers to the page and eyeballs to the screen. It “works” regardless of who the candidates are, or where the nation is in historical time. No expertise is actually needed to operate it. In that sense, it is economical. (And when everyone gets the winner wrong the “surprise” becomes a good story for a few days.) Who’s going to win — and what’s their strategy — plays well on television, because it generates an endless series of puzzles toward which journalists can gesture as they display their savviness, which is the unofficial religion of the mainstream press.
But the biggest advantage of horse-race journalism is that it permits reporters and pundits to “play up their detachment.” Focusing on the race advertises the political innocence of the press because “who’s gonna win?” is not an ideological question. By asking it you reaffirm that yours is not an ideological profession. This is experienced as pleasure by a lot of mainstream journalists. Ever noticed how spirits lift when the pundit roundtable turns from the Middle East or the looming recession to the horse race, and there’s an opportunity for sizing up the candidates? To be manifestly agenda-less is journalistic bliss. Of course, since trying to get ahead of the voters can affect how voters view the candidates, the innocence, too, is an illusion. But a potent one.
Imagine if we had them all — the whole Gang of 500 — in a room and we asked them (off the record): How many of you feel roughly qualified to be Secretary of State? Ted Koppel having retired, no hands would go up. Secretary of the Treasury? No hands. White House Chief of Staff? Maybe one or two would raise a hand. Qualified to be President? No one would dare say that. Strategist for a presidential campaign? I’d say at least 200 hands would shoot up. Reporters identify with those guys — the behind-the-scenes message senders — and they cultivate the same knowledge.
What a waste! Journalists ought to be bringing new knowledge into the system, as Charlie Savage and the Boston Globe did in December. They gave the presidential candidates a detailed questionnaire on the limits of executive branch power and nine candidates responded. This is a major issue that any candidate for president should have to address, given the massive build-up of presidential power engineered by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. We desperately need to know what the contenders for the presidency intend to do — continue the build-up or roll it back? — but we won’t know unless the issue is injected into the campaign.
Now, that’s both a political and a journalistic act. And where does the authority for doing such things come from? There is actually no good answer to that within the press system as it stands, and so the beast would never go there.
The Globe’s questionnaire grew out of Savage’s earlier reporting on the “unitary executive” and the drive to create an “unfettered presidency.” (See this PBS interview with Savage; also, contrast the Globe’s treatment with more of a throwaway effort from the New York Times.)
Here, the job of the campaign press is not to preempt the voters’ decision by asking endlessly, and predicting constantly, who’s going to win. The job is to make certain that what needs to be discussed will be discussed in time to make a difference – and then report on that.
Jay Rosen teaches Journalism at New York University, and is the creator of the blog, PressThink. He also writes for the Huffington Post. In July 2006 he started NewAssignment.Net, his experimental site for pro-am, open source reporting projects. He is the co-publisher with Arianna Huffington of OfftheBus, a collaboration between NewAssignment.Net and the Huffington Post in which citizen journalists tackle the ‘08 campaign.
Posted by Jay Rosen at January 20, 2008 10:38 PM
Jay, Thank you for a good article. I tracked it back from Salon.com so I could respond directly.
Perhaps "the media," as a group of high-profile pundits has come to be called, is indeed a brainless herd, but they do have interests. Every beast must eat. Their food is tension, drama, fear, sex, ... any instinctual drive that will reliably attract and hold attention. This is what they are paid to do under our current system of advertizing-driven media corporations. Making too much noise scares the "game" away, by giving the game away, which is why they hide behind the pretense of journalism: "The public has a right to know and we inform the public, therefore we serve a useful function and should be taken seriously." Except, they do not inform the public very well. They do not work for us at all. They work for themselves.
For some time now we have heard from the right that the "liberal media" was biased toward the left; meanwhile the left has pointed out the corporate nature of the media as evidence for a bias toward the right. The truth would seem to be that the media in general is biased toward itself. (This is true also of polemicists who do take a clear right or left stance.) The cardinal rule seems to be, "Thou shalt increase dramatic conflict and prolong stories. Thou shalt not lose audience share." Thus the method for political coverage (I can't call it reportage) often seems to be to tack back and forth in an effort to exert maximal influence and control over "the story." The reality of voter interests and our need for substantive information is irrelevant to the process of creating exciting drama. This is why the media loves war and why they also love close elections. If the electorate is moving toward a majority landslide in either direction, the media work against the "front-runner" to narrow the gap, thereby increasing their power to influence outcomes and sustain tension. This process does not require much of a mind; it is an instinct inculcated in those who have risen from the ranks of mere reporters. Facts are meaningless, spin is all.
If we are to change this "beast" into a true public servant deserving of its first amendment rights, we must find a way of moving the feed bowl. The Dog Whisperer shows how a beast can be tamed and made to behave in a civil manner, despite its wild instincts. It will take time to create a "mind" for the media beast and bloggers, such as yourself, are helping that effort by making the TV punditocracy, "The Media," into the news. When you point the spotlight on them and on the problem their instincts cause, namely an ill-served political process, you are beginning to create a new vision for how "News" can become better at its job, accurately informing the public. For that, I thank you.
Michael Aschenbach, author of VISION 3000, The Transformation of Humanity in the New Millennium, president of Emerging Vision Media ( www.emergingvisionmedia.com ), and media futurist.
Indeed, a good article. But I see some implications worth teasing out.
Firstly, this quality of mindlessness in the press is by no means confined to political campaigns. Anyone who really knows a topic -- as broad as a major field of scholarship, or as narrow as a single event they witnessed -- agrees that the accounts of that subject in the press nearly always "subtract from our understanding of it", even when the bare facts are what the press reports them to be. Nor is this defect a new thing; Dr. Rosen traces it back to the 1980 elections, but the paradigmatic example was Cronkite's blunder over the Tet Offensive in 1968.
Secondly, most of the ideas held by American intellectuals about how the world works, they hold because of things they read in newspapers or saw on television. This is inevitable, if there is a press at all; no single person can learn enough to check the press' accuracy on every subject. But at present, when for at least forty years the press has been incapable of recognizing significant truths, or of correcting important errors, it follows that the worldview of the US intelligentsia has been accumulating mistakes and misjudgements, and by now is far removed from empirical reality.
Thirdly, while distorted judgement is the common fate of all Americans, for we all must listen when the press speaks, there are trades and professions in which misjudgements are swiftly punished by losses of property, freedom, or life; and there are others in which misjudgements carry very little penalty -- the press itself falling into the latter set. One would expect that people in the former set have less distorted and more reliable worldviews than those in the latter do. It is therefore worth noting that people in the former set don't, as a group, have a consistent partisan bias, but those in the latter do: the famous statistic, that 91% of journalists vote for Democrats, is reflected by equally lopsided voting among professors in the humanities and social sciences.
John Stuart Mill said of the Tories in his day that it was the stupid party, because all the stupid people were drawn to it; by the same rule, we would have to name the Democrats today the ignorant party, for all the people whose knowledge of the world comes from the press alone are reliable Democratic voters. And where Mill wished to suggest that the Tory platform of his day was itself stupid, and that was why stupid people voted for it; so today it's hard not to suspect that the Democratic platform is a product of ignorance, and this is why ignorant people favor it. An uncharitable suspicion, to be sure -- but not therefore unfounded ...
Honestly, I didn't want to deal with solutions in this piece. As a writer, I just decided not to, and instead point to OffTheBus in my bio to show that I am involved in the search for alternatives.
Here, I wanted to take one idea--mindlessness--and like a thread pull it through the (very well known) horse race material to see if the horse race looks any different if you see it as that: mindless behavior by the media, which has no mind anyway.
Of course the challenge for such an extreme-sounding interpretation is to explain how it could be functional for the campaign press to be mindless. So that is also what I tried to do. (I am aware there are many other ways to explain it, different than mine.)
Tim: A lot of this goes back to that Taylor quote, which I used a lot in things I wrote, including my book, What Are Journalists For? In particular the idea of "innocence" or, as Taylor put it, "seeking truth, but also seeking refuge" (from anticipated criticism.) I re-formulated that idea in these lines, which to me are the key lines in the essay:
Focusing on the race advertises the political innocence of the press because "who's gonna win?" is not an ideological question. By asking it you reaffirm that yours is not an ideological profession. This is experienced as pleasure by a lot of mainstream journalists.
Which also comes out of various PressThink comment threads.
Graham: To follow on your point, are you aware of what the candidates and their staffs, gurus, advisors call "political coverage"....? To then, the term of art is "free media." As contrasted with paid media, or advertising. Free ads, as against paid ads, one might intuit. (Free variety also known as "earned media," which is a trip in itself, that term.)
I really liked this part of Michael Aschebach's interpretation and comment:
For some time now we have heard from the right that the "liberal media" was biased toward the left; meanwhile the left has pointed out the corporate nature of the media as evidence for a bias toward the right. The truth would seem to be that the media in general is biased toward itself.
Yes, this is part of what I was trying to say.
"Thou shalt increase dramatic conflict and prolong stories. Thou shalt not lose audience share." Thus the method for political coverage (I can't call it reportage) often seems to be to tack back and forth in an effort to exert maximal influence and control over "the story."
Correct. And I think the tacking tends to confuse and frustrate some of the more ideological critics.
The Iowa Caucuses, which we just went through, make clear sense only when we see them as an effort by the news media to exert maximal influence over "the (nominating) story." But that does not mean a conscious--or consistent--effort. More like starlings than a syndicate. And I would add that it's tricker than just maximizing influence on, or audience share: it's how to exert maximum influence without triggering certain kinds of criticism that would de-legitimate that influence. (Sorry for the academic term, but it's the most precise here.)
This process does not require much of a mind; it is an instinct inculcated in those who have risen from the ranks of mere reporters.
That's a good example of what I meant my mindless. If you are raised in a journalistic home (newsroom) you know how to do horse race journalism.
I've heard all the explanations of why campaign reporting is so bad and none of it impresses me.
Little of it is unique or insightful, and worst of all, almost none provides me with any useful information as a voter. These 'reporters' are all plainly in it for themselves and each other, and all the talk about how their role is vital to an informed democracy is just talk.
I keep reading about how it would be different if we could go back to when media organizations were not run by profit-minded managers. When was that? The media magnates of history were around decades ago, some very rich indeed, when reporters earned far less.
I.F. Stone wrote some four decades ago that “most American newspapers carry very little news. Their main concern is advertising" and most owners "are businessmen, not newspapermen.” Edward R. Murrow was talking about it in the 1950s. The Newspaper Guild was founded in the 1930s, at least in part to look out for journalists' economic interests. When was this golden age we keep hearing about?
It never existed. I think more good and memorable work was produced when journalism was a poorly-paid trade. If money destroyed journalism, it wasn't in the way that many journalists -- most of whom know little about finance except that it is 'bad' unless it involves their paycheck, which should invariably be larger -- complain of.
These 'reporters' seem to have endless time to write about what other people are writing about polls, and why the polls might be wrong about evangelicals taking part in the Iowa caucus or whether they correctly captured the last-minute decisions of older women in certain parts of New Hampshire.
Could anything be less informative, interesting or relevant to me as a voter, the people that these 'reporters' purport to write for?
They've become Karl Rove wanna-bes, slicing and dicing demographics. But Rove had a good excuse: he was there to win elections, not cover them.
They believe they are independent thinkers, yet the majority of their coverage is cookie-cutter indistinguishable. They claim they're better than bloggers because they have the skills, time and professionalism to dig deep for answers. What, specifically, are they doing that anyone with an opinion and a modem couldn't do?
As simplistic as it is, these folks are doing a better job of giving me an overall view on candidates' stands than any news organization: http://www.2decide.com/table.htm
And why don't we see more stories like this by the big names of journalism?
Why don't we see more such articles on a wide range of subjects -- adult literacy, the drought in the Western states, patent reform, mass transit, the state of the national parks, ID theft, highway safety, teenage pregnancy, gangs, long-term unemployment, port security, the prison system, and so on? We could all come up with an alphabet soup of ideas way beyond the big ones such as Iraq.
I am NOT interested in reading whining about how the Bush administration has left the U.S. in tatters or the Republican "war on science." I will quickly stop reading a story if it's going that way. Most issues we face go back decades or generations, across many administrations and sessions of Congress. I do NOT want to know who, if anyone, is to blame. That's the past -- old news, you know?
I want to know as factually as possible where we are, where we could go, how we could get there, what it would cost, and what each candidate has to say about it. What is their record (votes, bills introduced, bills signed or rejected as executive officials) or speeches. If there is no public record, isn't it the role of the media to get that information for us as voters by asking campaigns and candidates?
Instead of blaming candidates for running issue-free campaigns, which some do and some don't, force them to stop and focus on the issues, big and small.
ENOUGH with polls, ENOUGH with personalities, ENOUGH with race and gender, and ENOUGH pack grandstanding.
Do something useful or go out of business.
Jay -- thanks for the link.
I have three points of major disagreement with your thesis and two of concurrence.
1.Your anecdotes of coverage concentrate on the window between the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary in order to illustrate the emphasis by political journalists on futile and unnecessary attempts to foretell the future. Frankly this looks like cherry picking in order to bolster your argument. No fair description of the political journalism during that period could ignore three elements that do not fit into the Horse Race method: Barack Obama’s inspirational oratory upon winning in Iowa; the debate exchange on ABC News concluding in the “You are likable enough, Hillary” soundbite; Rodham Clinton’s near-lachrymose monologue in the Portsmouth diner. In other words, soundbites from candidates dominated coverage during this period not the Horse Race. Using such soundbites is Reality Gameshow journalism instead.
2.Your characterization of the political press corps as, first and foremost, identifying with campaign strategists is a weak explanation for why these soundbites were played over and over again. The Reality Gameshow journalism model is a stronger explanation. It depicts the campaign as an elaborately choreographed series of tests in the service of the ideology of Authenticity. The thinking goes that if candidates are subjected to enough stress, are caught wrongfooted, have to stare potential failure in the face then, at last, the veneer of talking points and position papers and poll-tested formulations will be stripped away and we will catch a glimpse of the authentic human being beneath the apparatus.
3.Horse Race journalism is indeed, as your argue, teleological, concerned with the question of who will win. Reality Gameshow journalism concentrates instead on the ordeal itself. Thus horse-race-style analysis that purportedly concentrates on voting blocs--Obama is gaining among African Americans, Rodham Clinton has the “waitress vote,” Mike Huckabee and the born agains, John McCain and the maverick veterans--turns out to help delineate the larger-than-life personalities of the candidates as they battle to find who will survive the ordeal. The extreme focus this year on the demographic characteristics of the candidates is a way to turn them into dueling archetypes we can identify with as they duke it out.
On the other hand…
4.The change in focus from Horse Race to Reality Gameshow is the answer to the question you raised about the collapse of the Ben Cramer-Halperin thesis that winning an election campaign is per se proof that a candidate is best qualified to be President. The Reality Gameshow style--in its quest for the Authentic moment--makes the implicit claim that Character, not competence or ideology, is the most important attribute for the job. The aim of this style of journalism is to try to reassure its viewers that they will not suffer voters’ remorse come November. In other words, they have tested the candidates so rigorously and have become so familiar with their tics that we will know their true motivations. Thus we hear the seemingly ridiculous Barbara Walters style questions that round out debates, inquiring into a candidate’s aspirations or foibles or regrets. Insights into how they instinctively react under stress are deemed more important than where they stand theoretically on global warming or universal healthcare.
5.Innocence--“to be manifestly agenda-less is journalistic bliss”--is absolutely maintained by the demise of Horse Race journalism and the rise of Reality Gameshow journalism. The savviness of the spinmeister may be gone. But coverage that values authenticity and personality and intimacy and character is just as innocent, for all that.
So on the face of it this does not seem like a constructive turn, although, I insist, a turn it is. Yet I find comfort in the following…
The Reality Gameshow style offers an answer to the previously imponderable question about why it takes so long for the United States to have an election. The reason the question was imponderable is because seen as a Horse Race, a teleological model, there is an excess of activity that has nothing to do with the result. On the other hand, what if the contest is a ritualized quadrennial national ordeal with larger-than-life characters representing the disparate factions--sociological, regional, ideological, demographic--in our society? Every four years we get together to assess large cultural questions…
* Has feminism advanced enough for us to be happy with a female leader?
* Is the political influence of born-again Christians on the wane?
* Are we colorblind enough to have an African-American in the White House?
* How does the body politic handle the consequences of NAFTA--a decline in the manufacturing base, an increase in the Hispanic population?
* Are the ideological divisions of the babyboom generation stale and irrelevant?
The body politic, as it were, checks its own sociological pulse. That check-up is more salutary than picking the correct winner in November.
At BuzzMachine, Jeff Jarvis, disillusioned by the myopia of opinion polls, has posted a provocative list of measurements for assessing how the election campaign is operating as such a cultural force. He recommends a focus on the viral activity, the intensity, the ferment of ideas, surrounding each candidate, rather than the simple percentage of potential support at the ballot.
If political journalists concentrated on the activity a campaign generates rather than simply the activities of the campaigns themselves, then maybe we could escape both the Horse Race and the Reality Gameshow.
PressThink: An Introduction
We need to keep the press from being absorbed into The Media. This means keeping the word press, which is antiquated. But included under its modern umbrella should be all who do the serious work in journalism, regardless of the technology used. The people who will invent the next press in America--and who are doing it now online--continue an experiment at least 250 years old. It has a powerful social history and political legend attached...
The People Formerly Known as the Audience:
"You don't own the eyeballs. You don't own the press, which is now divided into pro and amateur zones. You don't control production on the new platform, which isn't one-way. There's a new balance of power between you and us." More...
Migration Point for the Press Tribe: "Like reluctant migrants everywhere, the people in the news tribe have to decide what to take with them. When to leave. Where to land. They have to figure out what is essential to their way of life. They have to ask if what they know is portable." More...
Bloggers vs. Journalists is Over: "Here is one advantage bloggers have in the struggle for reputation-- for the user's trust. They are closer to the transaction where trust gets built up on the Web. There's a big difference between tapping a built-up asset, like the St. Pete Times 'brand,' and creating it from scratch." More...
"Where's the Business Model for News, People?" "It’s remarkable to me how many accomplished producers of those goods the future production of which is in doubt are still at the stage of asking other people, “How are we going to pay our reporters if you guys don’t want to pay for our news?'" More...
National Explainer: A Job for Journalists on the Demand Side of News
This American Life's great mortgage crisis explainer, The Giant Pool of Money, suggests that "information" and "explanation" ought to be reversed in our order of thought. Especially as we contemplate new news systems. More...
The Beast Without a Brain: Why Horse Race Journalism Works for Journalists and Fails Us. "Just so you know, 'the media' has no mind. It cannot make decisions. Which means it does not 'get behind' candidates. It does not decide to oppose your guy… or gal. It is a beast without a brain. Most of the time, it doesn’t know what it’s doing.." More...
They're Not in Your Club but They Are in Your League: Firedoglake at the Libby Trial: "I’m just advising Newsroom Joe and Jill: make room for FDL in your own ideas about what’s coming on, news-wise. Don’t let your own formula (blog=opinion) fake you out. A conspiracy of the like minded to find out what happened when the national news media isn’t inclined to tell us might be way more practical than you think." More...
Twilight of the Curmudgeon Class: "We’re at the twilight of the curmudgeon class in newsrooms and J-schools. (Though they can still do a lot of damage.) You know they’re giving up when they no longer bother to inform themselves about what they themselves say is happening." More...
Getting the Politics of the Press Right: Walter Pincus Rips into Newsroom Neutrality "The important thing is to show integrity-- not to be a neuter, politically. And having good facts that hold up is a bigger advantage than claiming to reflect all sides equally well." More...
A Most Useful Definition of Citizen Journalism "It's mine, but it should be yours. Can we take the quote marks off now? Can we remove the 'so-called' from in front? With video!." More...
The Master Narrative in Journalism: "Were 'winning' to somehow be removed or retired as the operating system for news, campaign reporting would immediately become harder to do, not because there would be no news, but rather no common, repeatable instructions for deciding what is a key development in the story, a turning point, a surprise, a trend. Master narratives are thus harder to alter than they are to apprehend. For how do you keep the story running while a switch is made?" More...
He Said, She Said Journalism: Lame Formula in the Land of the Active User "Any good blogger, competing journalist or alert press critic can spot and publicize false balance and the lame acceptance of fact-free spin. Do users really want to be left helpless in sorting out who's faking it more? The he said, she said form says they do, but I say decline has set in." More...
Users-Know-More-than-We-Do Journalism: "It's a "put up or shut up" moment for open source methods in public interest reporting. Can we take good ideas like... distributed knowledge, social networks, collaborative editing, the wisdom of crowds, citizen journalism, pro-am reporting... and put them to work to break news?" More...
Introducing NewAssignment.Net: "Enterprise reporting goes pro-am. Assignments are open sourced. They begin online. Reporters working with smart users and blogging editors get the story the pack wouldn't, couldn't or didn't." More...
What I Learned from Assignment Zero "Here are my coordinates for the territory we need to be searching. I got them from doing a distributed trend story with Wired.com and thinking through the results." More...
If Bloggers Had No Ethics Blogging Would Have Failed, But it Didn't. So Let's Get a Clue: "Those in journalism who want to bring ethics to blogging ought to start with why people trust (some) bloggers, not with an ethics template made for a prior platform operating as a closed system in a one-to-many world." More...
The View From Nowhere: "Occupy the reasonable middle between two markers for 'vocal critic,' and critics look ridiculous charging you with bias. Their symmetrical existence feels like proof of an underlying hysteria. Their mutually incompatible charges seem to cancel each other out. The minute evidence they marshall even shows a touch of fanaticism." More...
Rollback: "This White House doesn't settle for managing the news--what used to be called 'feeding the beast'--because there is a larger aim: to roll back the press as a player within the executive branch, to make it less important in running the White House and governing the country." More...
Retreat from Empiricism: On Ron Suskind's Scoop: ""Realist, a classic term in foreign policy debates, and reality-based, which is not a classic term but more of an instant classic, are different ideas. We shouldn't fuzz them up. The press is capable of doing that because it never came to terms with what Suskind reported in 2004." More...
Karl Rove and the Religion of the Washington Press: "Savviness--that quality of being shrewd, practical, well-informed, perceptive, ironic, 'with it,' and unsentimental in all things political--is, in a sense, their professional religion. They make a cult of it. And it was this cult that Karl Rove understood and exploited for political gain." More...
Journalism Is Itself a Religion: "We're headed, I think, for schism, tumult and divide as the religion of the American press meets the upheavals in global politics and public media that are well underway. Changing around us are the terms on which authority can be established by journalists. The Net is opening things up, shifting the power to publish around. Consumers are becoming producers, readers can be writers." More...
News Turns from a Lecture to a Conversation: "Some of the pressure the blogs are putting on journalists shows up, then, in the demand for "news as conversation," more of a back-and-forth, less of a pronouncement. This is an idea with long roots in academic journalism that suddenly (as in this year) jumped the track to become part of the news industry's internal dialogue." More...
Two Washington Posts May Be Better Than One: "They're not equals, but Washington and Arlington have their own spheres. Over the newspaper and reporting beats Len Downie is king. Over the website Jim Brady is sovereign. Over the userï¿½s experience no one has total control. There's tension because there's supposed to be tension." More...
Laying the Newspaper Gently Down to Die: "An industry that won't move until it is certain of days as good as its golden past is effectively dead, from a strategic point of view. Besides, there is an alternative if you don't have the faith or will or courage needed to accept reality and deal. The alternative is to drive the property to a profitable demise." More...
Grokking Woodward: "Woodward and Bernstein of 1972-74 didn't have such access, and this probably influenced--for the better--their view of what Nixon and his men were capable of. Watergate wasn't broken by reporters who had entree to the inner corridors of power. It was two guys on the Metro Desk." More...
Maybe Media Bias Has Become a Dumb Debate: "This here is a post for practically everyone in the game of seizing on media bias and denouncing it, which is part of our popular culture, and of course a loud part of our politics. And this is especially for the 'we're fair and balanced, you're not' crowd, wherever I may have located you." More...
Bill O'Reilly and the Paranoid Style in News: "O'Reilly feeds off his own resentments--the establishment sneering at Inside Edition--and like Howard Beale, the 'mad prophet of the airwaves,' his resentments are enlarged by the medium into public grievances among a mass of Americans unfairly denied voice." More...
Thoughts on the Killing of a Young Correspondent: "Among foreign correspondents, there is a phrase: 'parachuting in.' That's when a reporter drops into foreign territory during an emergency, without much preparation, staying only as long as the story remains big. The high profile people who might parachute in are called Bigfoots in the jargon of network news. The problem with being a Bigfoot, of course, is that it's hard to walk in other people's shoes." More...
The News From Iraq is Not Too Negative. But it is Too Narrow: "The bias charges are getting more serious lately as the stakes rise in Iraq and the election. But there is something lacking in press coverage, and it may be time for wise journalists to assess it. The re-building story has gone missing. And without it, how can we judge the job Bush is doing?." More...
The Abyss of Observation Alone. "There are hidden moral hazards in the ethic of neutral observation and the belief in a professional 'role' that transcends other loyalties. I think there is an abyss to observation alone. And I feel it has something to do with why more people don't trust journalists. They don't trust that abyss." More...
"Find Some New Information and Put it Into Your Post." Standards for Pro-Am Journalism at OffTheBus: "Opinion based on information 'everyone' has is less valuable than opinion journalism based on information that you dug up, originated, or pieced together. So it’s not important to us that contributors keep opinion out. What’s important is that they put new information in. More...
Out in the Great Wide Open: Maybe you heard about the implosion of Wide Open, a political blog started by the Cleveland Plain Dealer with four "outside" voices brought in from the ranks of Ohio bloggers: two left, two right. Twelve points you may not have seen elsewhere." More...
Some Bloggers Meet the Bosses From Big Media: "What capacity for product development do news organizations show? Zip. How are they on nurturing innovation? Terrible. Is there an entreprenurial spirit in newsrooms? No. Do smart young people ever come in and overturn everything? Never." More...
Notes and Comment on BlogHer 2005 "I think the happiest conference goers at BlogHer were probably the newbies, people who want to start blogging or just did. They got a lot of good information and advice. Some of the best information was actually dispensed in response to the fears provoked by blogging, which shouldnï¿½t be avoided, the sages said, but examined, turned around, defused, and creatively shrunk.." More...
Top Ten List: What's Radical About the Weblog Form in Journalism? "The weblog comes out of the gift economy, whereas most of today's journalism comes out of the market economy." More...
A Second Top Ten List: What's Conservative About the Weblog Form in Journalism? "The quality of any weblog in journalism depends greatly on its fidelity to age old newsroom commandments like check facts, check links, spell things correctly, be accurate, be timely, quote fairly." More...
Blogging is About Making and Changing Minds: "Sure, weblogs are good for making statements, big and small. But they also force re-statement. Yes, they're opinion forming. But they are equally good at unforming opinion, breaking it down, stretching it out." More...
The Weblog: An Extremely Democratic Form in Journalism "It's pirate radio, legalized; it's public access coming closer to life. Inside the borders of Blogistan (a real place with all the problems of a real place) we're closer to a vision of 'producer democracy' than we are to any of the consumerist views that long ago took hold in the mass media, including much of the journalism presented on that platform." More...
No One Owns Journalism: "And Big Media doesn't entirely own the press, because if it did then the First Amendment, which mentions the press, would belong to Big Media. And it doesn't. These things were always true. The weblog doesn't change them. It just opens up an outlet to the sea. Which in turn extends 'the press' to the desk in the bedroom of the suburban mom, where she blogs at night." More...
Brain Food for BloggerCon: Journalism and Weblogging in Their Corrected Fullness "Blogging is one universe. Its standard unit is the post, its strengths are the link and the low costs of entry, which means lots of voices. Jounalism is another universe. Its standard unit is "the story." Its strengths are in reporting, verification and access-- as in getting your calls returned." More...
Dispatches From the Un-Journalists: "Journalists think good information leads to opinion and argument. It's a logical sequence. Bloggers think that good argument and strong opinion cause people to seek information, an equally logical sequence. What do the bloggers bring to this? My short answer to the press is: everything you have removed."More...
Political Jihad and the American Blog: Chris Satullo Raises the Stakes "Journalists, you can stop worrying about bloggers 'replacing' the traditional news media. We're grist for their mill, says Satullo, a mill that doesn't run without us. Bloggers consume and extend the shelf life of our reporting, and they scrutinize it at a new level of intensity.."More...
Raze Spin Alley, That Strange Creation of the Press: "Spin Alley, an invention of the American press and politicos, shows that the system we have is in certain ways a partnership between the press and insiders in politics. They come together to mount the ritual. An intelligent nation is entitled to ask if the partners are engaged in public service when they bring to life their invention... Alternative thesis: they are in a pact of mutual convenience that serves no intelligible public good." More...
Horse Race Now! Horse Race Tomorrow! Horse Race Forever!: "How is it you know you're the press? Because you have a pass that says PRESS, and people open the gate. The locker room doors admit you. The story must be inside that gate; that's why they give us credentials. We get closer. We tell the fans what's going on. And if this was your logic, Bill James tried to bust it. Fellahs, said he to the baseball press, you have to realize that you are the gate." More...
Psst.... The Press is a Player: "The answer, I think, involves an open secret in political journalism that has been recognized for at least 20 years. But it is never dealt with, probably because the costs of facing it head on seem larger than the light tax on honesty any open secret demands. The secret is this: pssst... the press is a player in the campaign. And even though it knows this, as everyone knows it, the professional code of the journalist contains no instructions in what the press could or should be playing for?" More...
Die, Strategy News: "I think it's a bankrupt form. It serves no clear purpose, has no sensible rationale. The journalists who offer us strategy news do not know what public service they are providing, why they are providing it, for whom it is intended, or how we are supposed to use this strange variety of news."More...
He Said, She Said, We Said: "When journalists avoid drawing open conclusions, they are more vulnerable to charges of covert bias, of having a concealed agenda, of not being up front about their perspective, of unfairly building a case (for, against) while pretending only to report 'what happened.'" More...
If Religion Writers Rode the Campaign Bus: "Maybe irony, backstage peaking and "de-mystify the process" only get you so far, and past that point they explain nothing. Puzzling through the convention story, because I'm heading right into it myself, made me to realize that journalism's contempt for ritual was deeply involved here. Ritual is newsless; therefore it must be meaningless. But is that really true?."More...
Convention Coverage is a Failed Regime and Bloggers Have Their Credentials: "No one knows what a political convention actually is, anymore, or why it takes 15,000 people to report on it. Two successive regimes for making sense of the event have collapsed; a third has not emerged. That's a good starting point for the webloggers credentialed in Boston. No investment in the old regime and its ironizing." More...
Philip Gourevitch: Campaign Reporting as Foreign Beat: "'A presidential election is a like a gigantic moving television show,' he said. It is the extreme opposite of an overlooked event. The show takes place inside a bubble, which is a security perimeter overseen by the Secret Service. If you go outside the bubble for any reason, you become a security risk until you are screened again by hand."More...
What Time is it in Political Journalism? "Adam Gopnik argued ten years ago that the press did not know who it was within politics, or what it stood for. There was a vacuum in journalism where political argument and imagination should be. Now there are signs that this absence of thought is ending." More...
Off the Grid Journalism: “The assignment was straightforward enough,” writes Marjie Lundstrom of the Sacramento Bee, “talk to people.” When a writer dissents from it or departs from it, the master narrative is a very real thing. Here are two examples: one from politics, one from music. More...
Questions and Answers About PressThink "The Web is good for many opposite things. For quick hitting information. For clicking across a field. For talk and interaction. It's also a depth finder, a memory device, a library, an editor. Not to use a weblog for extended analysis (because most users won't pick that option) is Web dumb but media smart. What's strange is that I try to write short, snappy things, but they turn into long ones." More...